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Samuelson Clinic Helps Facilitate New Smart Meter Privacy Rules

Jennifer Urban '00
Samuelson Clinic Co-Director Jennifer Urban '00

By Andrew Cohen

The Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic is celebrating the enactment of privacy regulations for smart meter data in California—culminating more than 18 months of work on the issue.

By a 5-0 vote, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) adopted the nation’s first comprehensive set of rules protecting the privacy and security of detailed energy usage data provided by smart meters. In doing so, it also ensured that consumers can access that data to enhance their energy efficiency.

Working on behalf of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the clinic conducted exhaustive research on the ramifications of potential rules and regularly discussed its findings with business leaders and policy makers. In comments filed with federal and state agencies, faculty and students urged that privacy protection accompany the rapid growth of smart meter technology.

On behalf of CDT, and together with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the clinic proposed the core version of the privacy rules CPUC ultimately adopted in its decision.

“This benefits the public in numerous ways,” said Samuelson Clinic Co-Director Jennifer Urban ’00. “Smart meter data is valuable for energy efficiency purposes, but also very revealing as to what activities are occurring inside the household. So protecting our tradition of privacy in the home, while building out vital energy programs, is an important achievement.”

CPUC’s decision applies to California’s three largest electric utilities: Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison. Together, they serve 80 percent of state residents and have deployed roughly eight million smart meters, with an additional three million to be installed by the end of 2012.

Smart meters, which allow automated control of in-home devices, are part of a growing “Smart Grid” designed to increase energy efficiency, improve delivery reliability, and reduce peak demand. But the collection, retention, and use of smart meter data can jeopardize individual privacy by enabling utilities, marketers, law enforcement agents, litigation parties, and even criminals to discern information about activity in the home.

“The data can paint a very intimate picture,” Urban said. “You can tell when people wake up, when they’re cooking, when they go to sleep, when they’re home, or when they’re away. The information is collected from you automatically, as part of your energy service.”

Too Much Information

Under the new rules, utilities are required to provide their customers with daily updates on detailed energy usage through a Web-based interface, and to implement comprehensive privacy and security protections for that data. They must also provide alerts to customers—who pay more per kilowatt the more energy they use—when those customers move from one pricing tier to the next. The rules establish a customer right of access and control, use and disclosure limitations, and data quality and integrity requirements.

The final rule does leave some gaps—it does not extend to data given by customers to non-utility third parties, and it does not cover data accessed by a third party directly from a customer’s smart meter. As a result, regulators, customers, and their advocates will need to assess whether there is a need for more general protections.

The Samuelson Clinic’s work on the issue began in January 2010, when students wrote a comment and a reply comment explaining key privacy issues and recommending fair principles. On behalf of CDT, the clinic then participated heavily when CPUC opened a new proceeding last August pertaining strictly to privacy concerns.

“Over the course of a year and a half, several students have provided valuable help on pivotal issues,” Urban said. “They outlined to CPUC and other stakeholders why privacy protections were important, developed the privacy rules themselves, and explained how the rules would operate in the Smart Grid context. The clinic also presented this information at workshops; discussed it with utilities, third-party providers, and consumer advocacy groups; and outlined ways to best implement the rule.”

Urban said the clinic continually emphasized that “the valuable Smart Grid idea will fail if it’s so harmful to privacy that the costs outweigh the benefits.” With many states beginning smart meter rollouts and paying close attention to the California proceeding, the new rules are widely expected to be influential across the country.